PELINDABA, South Africa — Grrrr . . . grrrr . . . grrr . . . I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous while hoping that the deep dog-growl sound emanating from the magnificent cheetah under my sweaty palm was actually a purr. Luckily for me, it was.
Internationally recognized for its success in propagating cheetahs, the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre intentionally leaves most of its cheetahs as wild as their enclosures and contact with humans will allow.
Some individuals, like my purring friend, are hand-raised after being orphaned or abandoned by their mothers. If treated well, cheetahs raised by hand are friendly and even affectionate to people, with sandpaper licks and vigorous rubbing-against-legs. In fact, humans have tamed cheetahs for hundreds of years: Marco Polo wrote that the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan kept 1,000 cheetahs for hunting.
The few human-friendly cheetahs on the grounds add to the educational appeal of De Wildt, whose programs help schoolchildren and adults from South Africa and all over the world to appreciate this largely misunderstood creature, still routinely shot by livestock farmers throughout its range today, in spite of its endangered status.
“Farmers do lose animals, there’s no way around it. We’re working with the government to educate farmers; if they call us, we’ll pay a few thousand rand (approximately $300) to the farmer for the animal and re-release it into a protected area. One farmer we met had shot 40 cheetah in the previous six months,” De Wildt manager Alan Strachan says.
Located 40 km outside of Pretoria, the nation’s capital, De Wildt started out in 1950 as a regular farm with a sideline as an animal haven for abandoned creatures. The standard dogs and cats were joined by the likes of a hyrax, dingo and puma, and owners Ann and Godfrey van Dyk acquired a growing interest in their country’s wildlife.
In 1971, De Wildt became home to nine cheetahs from the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, which was short on the space needed to keep cheetahs, and De Wildt had plenty of space. De Wildt’s owners and the zoo hoped to breed the highly endangered animal, then notoriously difficult to maintain and breed in captivity.
Then, as today, wild cheetah populations were under severe stress throughout their range. Unlike lions or leopards, cheetahs eat only fresh meat, which means they kill animals whenever they need to eat. Once sated, they may leave a half-eaten carcass, then kill again three to five days later. In the eyes of livestock farmers, this makes them a particularly vile species.
Despite the cheetah’s amazing speed (between 90 and 112 kph for short distances) it is an inefficient hunter, and loses prey to lions, leopards and hyenas, all of which also eat cheetah cubs. Because it relies so much on speed, the cheetah also needs expanses of flat space to hunt, making it particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.
While cheetahs are still found on the savannahs of many countries throughout eastern and southern Africa, the world population today is a mere shadow of just 50 years ago: Between 9,000 and 12,000 exist in Africa (with 2,500, the largest single wild population, in Namibia), while a few hundred are still left in Iran and Afghanistan.
After a few years of trial and error, the De Wildt staff was able to simulate cheetahs’ natural mating conditions, with males and females separated except during the actual mating. Sperm samples determined which males would have the best chance of fathering cubs, and the center began a carefully monitored breeding program.
Each of 16 breeding females has its own enclosure along a long alley dubbed “lover’s lane.”
“This is where all the action happens,” says Strachan. “We bring the males up and let them walk down the alley. If there’s a good reaction between the male and a female, we put them in together.”
In 1975, De Wildt had its first successful births, with 23 cubs from six females. Since then, more than 500 cheetah cubs have been born at De Wildt, making it perhaps the most prolific breeding center in the world, and an important international center for cheetah research. Today it keeps a core of about 60 breeding animals, translating to 350 kg of fresh horsemeat/cheetah-chow daily.
Today it is known that all cheetahs are unusually inbred, due to a genetic bottleneck that took place about 10,000 years ago. This makes them particularly susceptible to disease, and requires carefully monitored disease prevention as well as outbreeding, to increase the gene pool.
A major coup came for De Wildt in 1981, when the world’s first captive-born king cheetah was born there to two “normal” cheetah parents. Seen in the wild on only a half-dozen occasions since the 1920s, the king cheetah has a curious mazelike pattern of irregular stripes and spots on its coat.
The king had been thought of as a subspecies; the De Wildt birth proved it was the product of a recessive gene. The center immediately launched another successful breeding program.
“There are probably less than 100 king cheetahs in the world, and we’ve bred 55 at De Wildt. We’ve been building up a king gene pool, outbreeding them with normal cheetahs to have a greater population, and prevent inbreeding,” Strachan says.
Though known for its successful cheetah breeding and research, De Wildt has also successfully bred other endangered species, including the wild dog, brown hyena, riverine rabbit, suni antelope and Egyptian vulture. When possible, the animals born at De Wildt are re-released into protected areas, to try to re-establish or strengthen the wild populations.
Special efforts are focused on the wild dog, a tricolored, spotty canine with large round ears. The wild dog population in all of Africa is today below 5,000. “We’ve been breeding wild dogs for 18 years,” says Strachan. “In the beginning no one wanted anything to do with them. They were thought of as vermin, as bad for the environment, even by specialists.”
“Now people realize that they’re an important part of the ecosystem, as one of the super-predators: They keep down antelope numbers, and so prevent overgrazing. They’re extremely intelligent, with a tremendous social structure — they make very good parents, and look after the sick and old.”
De Wildt’s breeding successes raise much-needed funds for the center’s ongoing research, maintenance and education programs, through sale of animals to international game preserves or zoos. Nowadays, nearly all of the cheetah and wild dogs are exported: Captive-bred cheetahs fare better in zoo environments, and international trade in wild-caught cheetahs is banned under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species.
“In southern Africa, there’s no place we can release cheetahs and wild dogs, except in protected areas. Farmers shoot them,” Strachan says. The cheetah is also not a popular animal for private game farms and reserves, as its habit of eating only fresh meat means that rare and expensive antelope could be killed every few days. Though tourists are keen to see cheetahs, they are elusive by nature and so not often sighted.
In today’s market-driven world, it seems that even wildlife has a better chance of surviving if it is assigned an economic value. Programs like De Wildt’s buy time for species like the cheetah, and for humans, as we slowly learn the meaning of “worth.”